COMMENTARY | General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who rarely lost a battle during the Civil War, was finally defeated by a school board. Yet it doesn’t mean that those who care about Southern pride have to lose.
The school board of Jacksonville in Duval County voted to rename Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. They haven’t voted on a new name, but there’s a solution that could please all sides, getting rid of Forrest’s name, but keeping a piece of Southern heritage. In fact, it would actually be more historically correct.
Forrest’s defenders will say that he was a wealthy slave trader, but so were a lot of other Southerners before the war. They’ll say that he killed all those Union soldiers (white and African-Americans) in battle, not a post-surrender massacre (though Forrest’s soldiers disagree). He may have joined the Ku Klux Klan, but he didn’t really serve as its Grand Wizard, and may have worked hard to shut the organization down. That’s a lot of maybes.
Those who support Forrest’s name should realize that he may be part of Southern history, he’s not really part of Florida history. The closest he ever came to combat in the state was Chickamauga in the extreme Northwest Georgia, or Selma, Alabama. He really doesn’t have a connection to Jacksonville, Florida.
So why was Forrest’s name chosen?
It turns out that the Forrest name was picked for the school not back in the 1870s, but in the 1950s, as a response to Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. It was selected as a strong statement against desegregation.
In other words, the organizers took this guy who had no connection to Florida because of that KKK connection. Now that Southerner historians have claimed the Forrest-Klan connection is tenuous at best, there’s no real reason to put his name on a high school in a state he didn’t visit.
But I can see where Southerners don’t want history removed. So why not have a Confederate with an actual connection to North Florida, who doesn’t have that quasi-connection to Civil War massacres or the Klan?
Why not George Harrison?
No, I don’t mean the guitarist for the Beatles. I mean Col. George Harrison. Harrison served with great distinction at the Battle of Olustee, the largest Civil War battle in Florida, where the South crushed a larger Union force an hour’s drive West of Jacksonville. Harrison also won the Battle of Ft. Wagner, an epic fight featured in the movie “Glory.”
While men who surrendered to Forrest at Ft. Pillow died, Harrison was lauded by Northern officers for his treatment of captured Union soldiers. His prison at Florence, South Carolina served in stark contrast to the nightmare at Andersonville, Georgia.
Jacksonville already recognized Harrison’s commanding officer, Gen. Joseph Finegan (who had a decent record, but not as strong as Harrison’s), by naming an elementary school for him. It’s time to recognize an actual Florida hero, by renaming Forrest HS as Harrison High School. It would be more historically accurate for Southerners, by picking a local hero without all the baggage Forrest has.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.